Once a year for the past 7 years I have done a data capture for the research I do as the USA Track & Field biomechanist for the top shot putters in the country.The data capture takes place at the US National Championships / Olympic trials and is used for quantitative 3D motion analysis that is then given to the athletes and their coaches. The process of the data collection requires meticulous standards of setup be made to ensure that valid and quality data can be produced. Any number of slipups in setup or unexpected changes due to grumpy officials, getting moved by tv crews, etc can make the entire data collection completely worthless and unusable. This means significant grant money would go unused and athletes would not receive the scientifically sound research that they’ve come to receive for another year. And because the data collection can only occur at one time each year, requires meticulous adherence to proper research procedures, and involves a variety of unexpected unknowns there is a pretty decent chance that something like that could happen. Unlike research conducted in a lab there are no ‘do-overs.’ Basically, you’ve got one chance to get it right each year and if you don’t you’re screwed. If you ever find yourself in situations like this here are some tips I’ve found useful:

  • Plan ahead: Even though I’ve now done this data collection 14 times (7 years with separate collections for men and women) I’ve learned not to be complacent with the setup. Getting complacent or assuming you ‘have it mastered’ quickly leads to mistakes.
  • Use lists: All told, the data collection requires quite a bit of equipment (multiple cameras, tripods, batteries, extra batteries and recording media, calibration equipment, etc). Once the competition starts it’s impossible to leave the area until the competition is done and you’ve calibrated the 3D space. I use lists to ensure that I bring out everything that I need on to the field because it’s quite easy to forget something.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected: Every time I’ve done one of these data collections something unexpected happens. I can set up an hour early only to be moved by NBC cameras. Or I might have battery failures despite double checking their charges before leaving. I’ve even had complete camera failures while out on the field. All of these can quickly undue your planning and preparation if you allow them to get you flustered and are not at least prepared for the foreseeable issues.
  • Have at least double redundancy fail safes: As noted above, something will go wrong. It’s practically inevitable when you’re doing a task with such high quality standards. Knowing this, it’s important to make sure you are covering all possible contingencies. I often bring out 2 extra batteries, 3 extra tapes, an extra camera, a 100 foot extension cord to find external power if I absolutely need it, 2 pens in case one runs out while writing down performances, and a variety of other fail safes. This double redundancy fail safeing is something I learned when I was a Human Factors / Industrial Engineering minor for my PhD (before switching to Exercise Physiology).
  • Give yourself time:

    Normally I am the guy who arrives at the last minute and is pulling everything together right at the end. But with something where quality standards are high and opportunities to correct are practically non-existant I make sure I give myself extra time to be prepared.

I know not too many people reading this are likely to be biomechanists and even fewer who work in field (as opposed to lab) settings but I think these general tips can be useful for a variety of situations. If you’ve got any tips that don’t fit in to what I’ve listed above please share it in the comments.